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Romney, Gingrich proceed carefully in GOP showdown

By Charles Babington And Beth Fouhy

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Dec. 3 2011 10:28 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, speaks to supporters and volunteers during a rally Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011, in Manchester, N.H.

Jim Cole, Associated Press

MANCHESTER, N.H. — The once-bursting 2012 Republican presidential field is narrowing to a two-man race, and GOP voters have one month before casting the first votes to winnow it to one. Barring a dramatic new turn, their chief options will be the steady but often bland demeanor of Mitt Romney and the idea-a-minute bombast of Newt Gingrich.

Herman Cain's suspension of his campaign Saturday, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry's continued struggles to regain traction, have focused the party's attention on Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Gingrich, the former House speaker. They offer striking contrasts in personality, government experience and campaign organization.

Romney has maintained a political infrastructure since his 2008 presidential bid, especially in New Hampshire. Gingrich, whose campaign nearly collapsed several months ago, is relying much more heavily on his televised debate performances and the good will he built up with conservatives as a congressional leader in the 1980s and 1990s.

Gingrich's efforts appear to be paying off in Iowa, which holds first in the nation caucuses Jan. 3.

A Des Moines Register poll released late Saturday found Gingrich leading the GOP field with 25 percent support among likely caucus goers. Texas Rep. Ron Paul had 18 percent support and Romney, who began campaigning in Iowa in earnest only recently, had 16 percent.

Gingrich's and Romney's political philosophies and differences are a bit harder to tease out. Both men have changed their positions on issues such as climate change. And Gingrich, in particular, is known to veer into unusual territories, such as child labor practices.

Gingrich, Romney and the other Republican contenders except former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman sat for interviews at a Fox News campaign forum Saturday hosted by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who sought the GOP nomination in 2008. Questioned by three Republican state attorneys general, the candidates described ways they would scale back federal programs.

Cain's announcement in Atlanta offered a possible opening for Romney or Gingrich to make a dramatic move in hopes of seizing momentum for the sprint to the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus. Neither man did. They appear willing to play things carefully and low-key for now.

At a town hall meeting in New York sponsored by tea party supporters, Gingrich declined to characterize the race as a direct contest between himself and Romney. Any of the remaining GOP contenders could stage a comeback before the Iowa caucuses, he said. "I'm not going to say that any of my friends can't suddenly surprise us," Gingrich said.

But once high-flying contenders such as Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota have not managed to bounce back so far, despite weeks of trying.

Gingrich was careful when asked why voters should choose him over Romney.

"I'll let you decide. I think we are very, very different in a wide variety of ways," Gingrich said.

Romney seemed as eager as Gingrich to avoid casting the contest as anywhere close to decided. He repeatedly turned aside reporters' invitations to light into Gingrich, offering only gentle critiques. As usual, he aimed much sharper remarks at President Barack Obama.

"I don't think people have really settled down, in a final way, to decide who they're going to support in the nomination process," Romney told reporters in Manchester, where he held a rally and knocked on a few doors. "I hope they give us a good, careful look."

That was about as much emotion and daring as he showed all day. With the second-tier candidates ramping up their criticisms of Gingrich, Romney stuck to his steady-as-she-goes campaign style of criticizing Obama's economic record, and saying little else.

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